Thursday, 26 August 2010

The world of Charles Dickens as depicted with the painted matte

The literary world of English author and novelist Charles Dickens produced many a classic narrative so readily identifiable in English literature.  The high end Victorian era morals and manners often played side by side with the grimy, unwashed and often ugly side of life was so much a part of Dickensian London.  Among his timeless stories many feature film adaptations have been made, both in Hollywood and in the United Kingdom and I have selected a handful of these films to illustrate that vivid Dickensian flavour as translated into, for the most part, endearing classic films by David Lean, George Cukor, David O'Selznick and others.

I seem to have difficulty finding many of the Dickens film adaptations on DVD or VHS here, as much as I'd love to see them, some such as NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, THE PICKWICK PAPERS and A CHRISTMAS CAROL for example are impossible (for me) to get a hold of.  What I do have here today are several wonderful films that work as literary masterpieces such as David Lean's wonderful GREAT EXPECTATIONS and the exceptional Ronald Colman version of TALE OF TWO CITIES among others that and are so successful in utilising the art of matte painting to tell those timeless stories.

In the thirties young entrepreneur and budding movie mogul David O'Selznick produced some fine Dickens films at MGM - DAVID COPPERFIELD and the aforementioned TALE OF TWO CITIES.  Among the people Selznick had around him on these two films was the highly regarded visual consultant and montage exponent Slavko Vorkapich (pictured here).  Vorkapich, a Yugoslav immigrant was held in extremely high regard (and no doubt suspicion by some dyed in the wool studio heads) for his creativity in visual stylisation on many pictures of the thirties and forties - an era when the credit 'montages by' were commonplace in on screen credit rolls. Being European, Vorkapich had an entirely un-Hollywood approach and ideals.  Seen as an intellectual who saw 'film' as much more than a mere commercial enterprise but as a form of high art when properly handled (what those manipulative, greedy power brokers running studios thought of him I'd love to know).  Selznick himself used Vorkapich as often as possible on many films to transform the mundane into the memorable.  I believe the look of those two Selznick versions illustrated here are to a large extent the result of Slavko's input - probably as much or more so than resident chief art director Cedric Gibbons who by contractual arrangement had himself acknowleged on far more MGM pictures than he ever actually worked on.

So, first up is the 1935 MGM version of DAVID COPPERFIELD - directed by George Cukor.  No special effects credit but probably under the control of James Basevi who ran the effects dept before moving over to Goldwyn around 1936 or so with his associate A.Arnold Gillespie taking over the role at MGM.  Warren Newcombe was probably a matte painter then, though maybe not the supervisor yet.  The MGM matte department was large and capable with a number of matte painters on staff, though who exactly at this time is unknown - possibly Rufus Harrington who was painting glass shots around that time, the father and son team of Anton and Edgar Kiechle and Jack Robson.  I assume Emil Kosa snr was there then too, and perhaps even New Zealand expatriot Ted Withers may have been too, though it's just speculation.  I hope you enjoy these great shots.

**For more on the painters at MGM see Domingo Lizcano's wonderful site and history of the people behind the shots.  Very highly recommended.

Many fine matte shots are seen in this 1935 version.
I'm not 100% sure about the shot on the right but I am sure the frame at left is a combination of studio set and plate of the cliffs and ocean - possibly with some painted extension to the house as well.
More very nice painted mattes from DAVID COPPERFIELD
A splendid matte with no visible blend nor giveaway - probably a soft, carefully worked match up.
There's just something wonderfully poetic about the design of thirties mattes that I just love.
The typical 30's and 40's glass shot so commonly required - the classic opera house or ornate theatre.
I'd bet my socks that most of this homestead is painted in, with just the door, pathway and little else built.
In addition to the matte paintings, DAVID COPPERFIELD features an extraordinary storm sequence, accomplished with a variety of photographic effects.  The sea appears to be a whipped up tank deluge on a large scale and the people are flawlessly integrated into this frightening scene.  Extremely impressive on the screen, believe me with the only really comparable storm/tank/process shots I can compare being Hitchcock's FOREIGN CORRESPONDANT with visual effects by Paul Eagler..
More from the storm - with actors swept into the tide.  It's so damned good I watched it around a dozen times and still have trouble picking it apart.  It 'looks' like soft mattes are possibly used in the foreground 'sea' with beautifully composited large scale miniature tank seas  added beyond.  There are a number of cuts in this sequence with different views and it looks brilliant.  Of course, if James Basevi was involved I'd understand it as he did similar work a year later on John Ford's THE HURRICANE with equally terrifying results.
The superb 1936 film version of the timeless tale with stunning matte effects throughout.
This show as well as being a joy to watch in every respect features many delightful glass shots.
Regrettably these are only from VHS so some quality is lost, but still impressive effects work shines through.
The dreaded and hated Bastille (with painted Paris surrounding it) - as depicted by the MGM matte department.
More views of The Bastille, with split screened in guards (far right) with painted area and plate of extras below.
"They were the best of times, they were the worst of times"
The tide has turned, the people have spoken.... are things that much better?
The most atmospheric effects shot in the film (middle) - and one of the most haunting images of that historic period.
Ronald Colman faces his executioner - a dazzling effects sequence done in a continuous shot moving up the guillotine with period Paris beyond, complete with perspective shifts etc - the blade drops - the camera trucks in to the setting sun with the notion that things can only get better(?)  A very well executed (!) effects shot.
David Lean's masterpiece, GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) - a superb telling, beautifully acted and stunningly shot by Guy Green.  Here are two conceptual sketches by art director  John Bryan, who along with lighting cameraman Green recieved Academy Awards for their work on this film.  The sketch at left is for visual effects purposes and is the layout for the matte shot which appears later in the film (see below)
Almost certainly painted matte set additions of olde London towne.
Although there was no special effects credit on the film some sourses state that esteemed British matte painter Walter Percy Day may have painted on this show, I'm not so sure as Day's profile was sufficiently high enough that he surely would have received credit here.  Some suggest that former Day protegee Les Bowie could have painted these shots and I tend to go along with that notion as Bowie was at Rank during that time, just starting out, as were fellow matte painters Albert Whitlock, Peter Melrose and Cliff Culley.  Culley may have had a hand in these too.  The above ballroom is generally regarded as Les Bowie's first glass shot.
The glass shot at left is the one I referred to above with John Bryan's production sketch.  The shot at right is interesting as it involves a pan and to me suggests a hanging miniature of the bow of the boat and foreground wharf pilings perhaps.
A beautiful painted coutroom at the Old Bailey with exciting use of perspective and expressionist light.
Again, exciting use of perspective and carefully modelled light in this exquisite painted view of the gallows at Tyburn.


Onto another fine David Lean adaptation, though not quite as good as GREAT EXPECTATIONS, this 1948 version of OLIVER TWIST was interesting to those of us outside of the United States as that country had significant 'issues' with the portrayal of Fagin by Alec Guiness, somehow interpreted as anti-semetic or some such nonsense.  As a result the film was only ever exhibited Stateside in a heavily edited format for decades to appease certain groups I believe, which to the rest of the world is pretty laughable.  Anyway, the film, again photographed by Oscar winner and Lean collaborator Guy Green is a sight to behold and makes one hark back to an error when that film stock choice was so well utilised.  The opening set piece has extraordinary night sky effects, possibly a combination of soundstage backings, glass shots and maybe carefully lensed actual cloudscapes I'm guessing. 

The special effects credit 'Joan Suttie' and 'Stanley Grant' are a bit of a mystery to me I'm afraid.  Again Walter Percy Day has been documented in some places as being matte artist but again I feel that day would have received screen credit if he were involved.  I'd have to go along with fellow matte enthusiast Domingo Lizcano and agree that in most likelihood Les Bowie and maybe Cliff Culley would have been matte artists on this show again.  IMDB lists Joan Suttie as a matte painter on several British films and Stanley Grant as a matte cameraman.  I can assume from that that Suttie was one of Percy Day's numerous trainees, much like Judy Jordan.  It's unlikely that they were running the effects unit then as Bill Warrington surely was (for several decades).  A mystery.
Another wonderful pre-production sketch for an evocative visual effects shot by art director  John Bryan.
The shot at upper right I don't know if it's a glass shot, it's possibly a set.  The rest are effects shots I'm sure, with the lower left cloudscape being far to precise to John Bryan's sketch to be sheer chance by a second unit shoot.
Two variations on the same painted view of the slums around St Pauls.  Again, the perspective lines are extreme and lend an other-worldly feel to the proceedings which really works well I feel.
The shot at left I think is a set with the suns rays added by glass art probably.  The view at right is probably a forced perspective actual set, and like many others has that extraordinary 'twisted' look about pun intended.
Another great John Bryan production sketch.
Now.... the joys of having established this blog of mine is the totally unexpected and often thrilling artifacts that are passed on to me by people with connections to the world of movie magic.  I was extremely fortunate recently to acquire a whole bunch of extremely rare, never seen before old matte shot log sheets from the old Rank special effects department.  Among the treasures within were some great, detailed accounts of the matte and miniature effects work from OLIVER TWIST with unique shot by shot breakdowns as illustrated above.  I've taken care to reproduce the full original log entry complete with the punch holes in the side (for those of us who cherish such antiquities.  A very special thanks to both Leigh Took, former associate of old time Rank matte painter Cliff Culley (who would have worked on this show with Bowie and maybe Whitlock as well) and to my friend Dennis Lowe for getting this material from Leigh for me in the first instance.  I can't thank these gents enough.

A direct frame enlargement of the final composite from the 35mm work print.

Another of these gems - with description suggesting a full painting was used here with a separate overlay ray element.

Once again, a print directly taken from the 1947 35mm work print... for your viewing pleasure.


Dirk Bogarde was good in the 1958 Ralph Thomas version of TALE OF TWO CITIES at Pinewood, and the film overall was pretty good.  Not so for the matte effects which to my mind were just plain awful.  There were just the two matte paintings in the film (the lack of expansive period mattes made the film somewhat claustrophobic) and as we can see, these views of The Bastille just don't cut it!  Surprisingly poor design and execution for a big budget Rank film, these shots really let the whole show down.  No credit here but probably Cliff Culley.

My final matte shot is the only other I could come up with, this being from a mid eighties version (possibly for television) of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.  The matte artist on this was Charles Stoneham, a former apprentice under Culley and closely associated with the effects of Roy Field and John Grant.

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